Clark Makes Home Debut, Continuing to Adjust to Life in the WNBA

By Madie Chandler | FeverBasketball.com

While she was in high school, Caitlin Clark’s family bought Pac-12 Network access so Clark could watch Sabrina Ionescu play college basketball for Oregon. On Thursday, Clark faced off against her one-time idol in her WNBA home debut. Though the Fever fell to the Liberty, 102-66, Clark’s nine points, seven rebounds, and six assists flashed the bursts of potential that the 17,247 fans in Gainbridge Fieldhouse came to see.

“People are excited,” Clark said. “Like when I was driving here, people on the streets are in Fever gear. You can just feel the buzz and excitement around this team, not only for this game tonight but just the entire season.”

Clark admired Ionescu for elevating Oregon to a nationally relevant level and made it her goal to do the same at Iowa. Now she looks to push the women’s game to unprecedented heights as she arrives on the WNBA scene. She’s already stirred-up a historic level of interest in Indiana as Fever tickets continue to be a hot commodity.

Four other WNBA franchises moved their matchups with Indiana to larger arenas – the Las Vegas Aces, Los Angeles Sparks, Washington Mystics, and Atlanta Dream. The moves are an attempt to keep up with the rising fan interest in Clark, now dubbed “Caitlin Fever.”

“I never feel like it’s like a competition of like, we need to beat the men,” Clark said. “We can be on the same level that they’ve been at…Why can’t we be right there with them?”

Her debut in Connecticut on Tuesday drew the most viewers for a WNBA game ever broadcast by ESPN with 2.1 million, but not without adversity. Her 10 turnovers were a WNBA debut record, but she shot her way through an oppressive defense to notch her first 20 points.

Clark joked before the game about her debut’s 10 turnovers being something she could laugh about at the end of her career, and hoped she could clean it up a little bit. She committed just three turnovers in her second career game, and all three came in the first half of action.

“It’s a process and she’s going to be fine,” Coach Christie Sides said. “She just needs to get a little bit of confidence right now. I think she’s taking shots that she normally would knock down.”

The attention from other teams’ primary defenders makes Clark’s usual offensive outputs more difficult to produce – New York’s Betnijah Laney-Hamilton, one of the WNBA’s best defenders, drew Clark as a defensive assignment. Despite the challenge to produce offense, Clark’s Fever teammates don’t doubt her ability to elevate their league, and the franchise has the patience to wait for her to build chemistry with her teammates and learn their rhythms on the court.

“People are playing her aggressively,” Katie Lou Samuelson said. “We can do a better job of trying to help her get some space and help her get some freedom, but we trust her. We want to keep figuring out how to work with her in the best way.”

Although frustration is a natural part of the acclimation to higher-level basketball, Clark doesn’t dwell on subpar performances She maintains great perspective throughout the frenzy of attention and the unforgiving weight of basketball excellence. More than that, she relishes the freedom of competition and expression that she feels when she steps on the court.

“I feel like it’s kind of where I show my creativity,” she said. “…Basketball is a way to be creative and express yourself. And I feel like that’s kind of been something over the course of my career that I’ve realized.”

It’s that same expression that made Clark’s Iowa career captivating, her personality vibrant, and her transcendence imminent. The same expression from Clark pushed Gainbridge Fieldhouse to a sellout on Thursday, drew over two million viewers to ESPN’s Tuesday broadcast, and drove Chicago-area fans to petition the Sky to relocate their matchups with the Fever to the United Center.

Clark may take time to adjust to her new and challenging league, but she’s well adjusted to superstardom, and she’ll have the full support of her coaches and teammates as she carves out her place in the WNBA.